Monthly Archives: October 2013

All aboard the good ship Jolly Phonics

I am stressed. The pressure is getting to me.  I am developing an involuntary twitch, to accompany the other involuntary twitches that have developed over the last five years of having kids, induced by a smorgasbord of calamities and anxieties such as trips to A&E, almost-tumbles into deep, tidal waters and strange birth marks that the GP informed me could be a terrible, serious condition or you know, just a birth mark. Oh yes, when it comes to the pick and mix of child-induced stresses, I feel I have scooped a fair portion of treats from those acrylic troughs of delight and stuffed my paper bag to the brim.

But this time, it is an educational-induced stress. My son, being in foundation year of his primary education, is learning to read. In my mind, it would be a joyous voyage of discovery. We would embark on the good ship Jolly Phonics, grab the oars with glee and sail off into a sea of letters, singing sea shanties of cats on mats and pins in tins, laughing and squealing at the fantastic pleasure of my son being able to decipher those curious hieroglyphics that had up until this point eluded him, and finally gain entry to the amazing world of books. I thought this, because I am a twat.

Instead, I find I have embarked on this journey with an occasionally petulant crew, no map, no oars, no idea how to steer and a burning desire that we should have taken the fucking plane instead. Because I thought that foundation year was all about play. When we looked round on the school tour and went into the foundation class room, I saw a boy intently colouring in a sheet of A4 paper with a blue pencil. Now, I appreciate that he could have put down his copy of The Grapes of Wrath moments before we entered, but I presumed that in the first year of education, colouring in and general mucking about would be high on the curriculum. After all, they are four and five. They have only just mastered their opposable thumbs, for god’s sake, and buttoning their own shirts can take the best part of thirty minutes. And frankly, I am a staunch advocate of prolonging the play for as long as possible, to enhance creative thinking skills, imagination and not having to get the parents involved in anything too taxing.

But only a week in, I opened the school bag to find a sheet of words with curious spots under each letter. I read the parental instructions. Then read them again. And once more, for luck. Still not sure I fully grasped the task in hand, but with a portentous feeling that I could be scuppering my son’s chances of learning to read with every misplaced admonishment or lack of encouragement, we started.

“a-s” he sounded out, pressing the spots diligently with his forefinger. I nodded encouragement, not wanting to interrupt his concentration by saying something.

“a-s,” he repeated.

“a-s,” he said once more. This is not as exciting as I first thought it was going to be.

“Assss,” he stated and looked at me. Now I was in a quandary. Technically, ‘a-s’ does not spell ‘ass’. But should I piss on his phonics fire so early in the process, given it was only the merest of nascent flickers as is was?

“Nearly,” I said with a smile.


“Not quite, sweetie.”

“Asss?” he repeated. Yes, why not keep repeating the wrong answer until I get so worn down I change my mind?

“Let’s sound it out again, shall we?” I offer, watching his shoulders drop an inch. Christ. There are about twenty five words on this sheet and we have to pick his brother up in fifteen minutes, at which point any hope of concentration is shattered by the piercing cries of an eighteen month old who wants in on the action.

“Shall I sound it out for you, so you can hear it?” I ask. I have no idea if this is against the rules. In fact, I don’t know if there are any rules. But I create one on the spot: what goes on in reading homework stays in reading homework. I do not want to be told off by E’s teacher for helping when I shouldn’t, or not helping when I should, or letting him off the hook too easily, or keeping him, sobbing, on the hook for too long. Bloody hell. Who knew learning to read was so bloody complicated?

“A-s,” I sounded out, trying to make it more obvious.

“Don’t tell me mummy! You told me! I know it now! That’s what I was going to say.” He placed his hand over my mouth so I couldn’t help him further, which reminded me, next time we sit down after school to do some reading, I am going to make him wash his bloody hands first.

And so we continued. E vacillated between the euphoria of reading a word, and forehead-slapping despair when the letters made no sense whatsoever, no matter how many times he pressed those buttons. I assured him that is was not important, and it would get easier, and it was all about trying, which we both knew sounded a lot like something you would say to a complete loser.

A couple of weeks later and we have progressed to four letter words. No, not those kinds of four letter words. I have muttered a few of those, under my breath, as E loses patience with himself and declares he won’t do any more. I will him to do well every time we sit down with the word sheets, so he can jump up and down with the joy of knowing that those four letters in front of him spell ‘less’ and try not to keep saying ‘no’ when he gets it wrong six times in a row. Should I be saying no? Should I dress it up as a ‘nearly’, or a ‘good try’? I feel as if I really should have undertaken some teacher training to be sitting here with my son, being partially responsible for helping him to learn to read. Keep it light and happy, I tell myself, as I watch him lay his head on the table as he gets it wrong again. I may join him at this rate.

“Never mind!” I chirp, wondering momentarily if he is dyslexic, due to his constant confusion between ‘b’ and ‘d’, then realising that no, he is just probably slow on the uptake. We both stare at the word sheet, and I try not to remember the comment from the teacher in his reading record book telling me it would be helpful if he practised his words at home. I couldn’t decide if I was more pissed off that she thought we didn’t practise, or that E was so bad at reading that it just seemed as if we did not practise. So I just ground my teeth and flared my nostrils and contemplated writing something very rude in his reading record book.

And then there’s the reading books. The excitement of having a book with actual words that he is expected to read fades rapidly in the face of his point blank refusal to read it, as it is “too tricky”. I explain that it is only tricky because he thinks it is, and if he thought it was going to be easy it probably would be, which fooled precisely neither of the two people sitting at the table. After some gentle cajoling (which may or may not have involved a bribe, I couldn’t possibly say) we start to read the book.

“N-a-n…” he sounds out. This is a new word for him, and I see him scan the picture for clues. “Grandma?” he offers. As a complete guess, it could be worse, I suppose. I ask him to try again.

“N-a-n,” he repeats. “Lady?” I take a deep breath. I once quite fancied being a teacher. Now I realise that I would be a crap teacher, as my single urge at this point is to flick his ears and tell him to stop bloody guessing and READ IT PROPERLY. Eventually, I help him with the word and we move to the next.

“S-i-t-s,” he sounds out. There is a pause. Another new word. He think about it for a while. “Acrobat?” Acrobat? Acrobat? It is wrong on so many levels I am not sure what an appropriate response would be, apart from ‘pass the wine please’. So I laugh, then realise that of all appropriate responses, that is approximately last on the list, and so we sound it out together and finally, about three weeks after we started this two-word sentence, we have it. Nan sits. Well good for fucking nan. Forget sitting, nan. What I need is a bloody good lie down.

Tumbling into a pothole of offspring illness

So there I am, walking briskly along the uneven path of parenting, stepping lightly over the weeds of disobedience, swerving gracefully to avoid the cracks of stubbornness, and oops, before I know it, I have tumbled into a pothole of offspring illness. Damn, damn and thrice damn.

B, who had been coughing like a hardened 20-a-dayer, developed an ear infection over the weekend. Obviously, being the caring parents that we are, did nothing whatsoever about this until Monday, when the doctor confirmed that B was definitely unwell and not just having a grump (my own first attempt at diagnosis). I have a vague recollection of looking at B on Saturday, falling over for the fifth time that morning, with his flushed cheeks and slightly red eyes and thinking ‘blimey, I wonder if he has an ear infection?’ And then, because I am pretty sure my maternal instinct was removed by accident when I had my C-Section, I dismissed such folly and put it down to teething. I swear, if I see my son with a limb hanging off and a fence post through his torso, I shall attribute it to teething.

And, being those aforementioned caring parents, we took him to nursery the next day. I entered reception looking like I was about to open a pop-up pharmacy, cradling Calpol, antibiotics and ibuprofen in my arms and making B walk as there was no room left for him to hitch a lift. He waved forlornly at me as I left him in the baby room, and walking back to the car I mentally docked myself 100 points from the league of great parents. Which meant I was currently running at a 342,800 point deficit. Shit, I am going to have to pull my finger out and do some serious Lego tower building to recover from this.

I drove off to my meeting, thinking happy thoughts about him being absolutely fine, but cringing every time the phone rang in case it was nursery telling me that B had taken a turn for the worse. But give my son his due, he did last until about 4pm, at which point he surrendered to his temperature and started to heat up like a hot thing in hot land, sitting on a Bunsen burner in a set of thermals.

We gave him a bath of Calpol and a spoon of cool water, sorry, a bath of cool water and a spoon of Calpol (although I am not convinced that the former would not be more effective), fried a couple of eggs on his forehead for our tea and got him to bed. All was quiet for three hours. Perhaps he is over the worst, we thought. As parents of two children, we should know bloody better by now, but no. Go to stupidity jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect £200 or any sleep. By half past ten, B was awake. And when I say awake, I mean screaming inconsolably. We cuddled, we stroked, we sang, we walked, we Calpoled…

 (Oh yeah, get me, I have just made Calpol into a verb. To Calpol verb: to administer strawberry loveliness to a minor. If the language pedants amongst you are struggling with this, I suggest you pour yourself a large glass of Calpol and relax a bit).

…but to no avail. B was rasping, struggling with short, rapid, shallow breaths that made us distinctly nervous.

“Shall I take him to A&E?” I venture with a grimace. I shudder involuntarily as I remember the last time I went and spent four hours waiting to be seen, at which point I was told to just go home.

We do what parents do when they are totally out of their depth and have a potentially very sick child on their hands: we act decisively and swiftly. Oh no, wait a minute, that must have been another, more competent set of parents. My mistake. What we do is stare at each other, then at B, then back at each other again, as if we can conjure the solution from between us, just by tracing an invisible line of magical answer-giving triangulation. After a while it becomes apparent that the sofa cushion is not going to spring to life and give us any medical advice, so we escalate our focus from the cushion to NHS Direct.

I approach the call with trepidation, since the last time I phoned about E having what I suspected was the Noro virus I was told to keep feeding him normally, including curry. There spoke a woman who was not going to be responsible for the ensuing clean up operation. Well, actually, there spoke a woman who did not have a bloody clue and was reading it off a screen, but let’s not be picky. But they were remarkably good, and arranged for a doctor to call us. We waited for forty five minutes, watching our son rasp and wheeze as he tried desperately to find a comfortable position on M’s lap. Eventually, I spoke to the doctor, who asked me all the same questions, agreed with me that it could be a chest infection, warned me not to use his puffer too much in case he became tachycardic (I am sorry, did I just wander onto the set of bloody Casualty? How am I supposed to know what that means? Oh, fast heart rate, you say? Well, why not tell me that in the first place, you knob?) and didn’t answer the only question that I actually had:

“Do you think it is safest to take him to A&E?”

“Well, it’s up to you.”

“I know, but given that you have had seven years medical training and I struggle to apply a plaster correctly, I was kind of thinking you might have a better idea than me.” Okay, I did not say this. But I thought it. Really loudly, Whilst grinding my teeth.

He did leave me with a very comforting thought though. He said that with young children, they can go downhill into a more serious condition very, very quickly. Ooh, super. You know, I had approximately one atom of my being that was not being consumed by anxiety up until that point, so thanks, Doctor Knob, for coming to my rescue there.

Well over an hour after this whole debacle began, we were back where we started, pondering an A&E trip. B, meanwhile, was so pissed off with our inability to make him feel any better, he had dozed off, at which point we thought sleep would be a better cure than four hours in a hot, noisy A&E., so we  decided to break the cardinal rule of the household and let him sleep with us so we could hear him breathing.

And so there we ended up, M and I flanking B, who laid on top of the duvet in his vest to get the full effect of the fan I had rigged up to cool him down. I was sodding freezing, but moaning felt a little churlish, so I kept my own counsel, the effort of which was quite something. B decided the only way he was going to sleep was to grind his head into my windpipe until my neck was at snapping point and I had a curiously close up view of the headboard. Not my position of choice for a sound night’s sleep, it has to be said. Stoically (okay, I was thinking some terrible, sweary things about my current predicament, but given I said none of them out loud I can still play to stoicism card, I reckon) I put up with this until 2am, at which point I could bear it no longer and gently passed the baton, I mean, boy, to M. I stared at the headboard a little longer, as my neck had seemingly frozen, and spent the next three hours in that weird semi-awake state where a small but insistent part of your brain is screaming “Don’t Sleep! You have a sick child! He could stop breathing for all you know! Stay awake you bitch! Don’t you dare close your eyes!”

It was almost a blessing when B roused himself at 5am to start the day, and I never thought I would hear myself say that. My limbs had been filled with concrete, my eyelids stuffed with grit, my brain had leaked out of an unspecified orifice and looming ahead was a call to the doctor’s surgery where I would be told I was eighth in the queue, behind an octogenarian who was going to give a full medical history of her varicose veins. I tell you something about falling into this pothole of offspring illness. It’s bloody cramped, it smells a bit and I think it has made me little tachycardic. Oh yes, in your face, Doctor Knob.

My son, the tight-lipped, secretive, spy operative

There are a huge amount of new experiences and much to get used to, when you start school. For E, now six weeks into his first term, one of the first things that it appears has caused him a pause for thought is the general incessantness of it. Not that he has told me this outright. Oh no. He is a five year old boy. So I have to glean information from him like an informational archaeologist, painstakingly brushing away layers, looking for clues, gently prodding to see what happens, stroking my beard as I ruminate on what could lie beneath. Okay, maybe not the beard. Not for another few years, at least.

On the second Friday he attended school, I was getting him dressed in his uniform. “Am I going to school again, mummy?” he asked, eyebrows raised with the incredulity of such a ridiculous notion.

“Yes, you are,” I reply with a smile. A smile that means: please don’t make this a Big Thing.

“I don’t want to go,” he states emphatically.

Of course, he did go. Granted, dragging him the whole way there by the wrist was not the most relaxed walk to school we had ever had, but he did go.

Last Sunday, he asked: “Mummy, why are weekends only two days?”  A question that echoes throughout every household, from every school child, parent and worker, uttered with an air of resignation as the last day of the weekend draws to a close and Monday morning starts to loom like a lumbering giant with a cattle prod and an alarm clock.

So, it appears he finds the routine of school a little challenging. I am interested in finding out what he does all day at school, given that I am his mother with at least a passing interest in his educational development.

“What did you do today then?” I ask on the walk home.

“We had lunch.”

“Lovely. What else?”

“We had a snack.”

Well, I can be confident that at least his stomach has settled in well at school.

“What else did you do? Painting? Stories?”

“I don’t remember.” This, from the boy who remembers the most inconsequential of details from something that happened two years ago (“You remember mummy, we met that man in the funny hat in that shop with chairs in.” Errr. No. I barely remember my own name some days, so a man with dodgy head wear could well have passed me by.)

It is obvious I need another tack to elicit information from my son. Maybe take a more peer-led approach.

“Who did you play with today?”

“A boy.” Good god, he would make a hell of an MI6 operative. He’s not even breaking sweat under my ferocious interrogation. Who knew I had inadvertently enrolled him in bloody spy school?

“And what was his name?”

“Don’t know.” Okay, I surrender. For now.

And then, at some unspecified moment after the event, anywhere between an hour and three days, E will let slip some details about his school day.

“We made a spider from an egg box and the legs were pipe cleaners, mummy,” he announces in the middle of lunch. I nearly fall off my chair, overwhelmed by the tsunami of information that has just poured from him.

“That sounds cool,” I enthuse. “Why were you making spiders?”

“Don’t know.” Bang. The sound of the sharing door slamming shut in my face.

So whilst E gets used to being at school, I get used to knowing pretty much nothing about school. At nursery, I would get a full debrief from the staff, including the number of toilet trips he made, what he ate for lunch, and what activities he filled his day with. At school, they file out of the classroom at the end of the day having sworn a vow of silence, the teacher giving each parent a brief, knowing smile. A knowing smile that says: we know. We know everything. You, however, know nothing.

Whenever E does let slip what he has been up to at school, I am invariably in the middle of driving, or changing B’s nappy, or doing something that means I can’t really pay attention. A few weeks ago, I nearly drove into the verge as I tried to keep one eye on the road whilst the other watched E act out his jolly phonics songs, which I had no idea even existed until that moment.

I also suspect that school is training him in the art of mis-information. E tells me one afternoon that he had apple and carrot as a snack. Apple and carrot? Is that not a match made in culinary hell, only rivalled by banana and beetroot? I ask him if it really was apple and carrot. “Really,” he says, nodding enthusiastically. I chalk that one up in the ‘possibly a whopping fib’ column.

Yesterday, I ask him what he had for pudding (I soon realised that as it seemed he was only allowed to talk about what he ate at school, I may as well glean as much as I can about his menu choices). Yoghurt and fruit, he tell me. I ask him what the other choice was. “That yellow thing… you know, that makes your face go funny.”


“Yes, lemon.”

“There were slices of lemon for pudding?”


I chalk this one up in the ‘utter bollocks’ column.

So as the weeks trundle on, and E gets used to being at school for what must seem like the rest of his lifetime, I have to get used to knowing nothing about what he is doing. But there is one glimmer of hope. If school is training my son to be a tight-lipped, secretive spy operative, capable of withholding information under maternal pressure, then all I need to do is launch a clandestine operation and single out one of his friends who will willingly turn informant. There are two packs of Smarties and an unmarked sheet of Spiderman stickers waiting for them.

Warning: these mountains do not actually explode

I don’t allow my children to watch television. Instead, we engage in educationally-rich, brain-stimulating activities that… hang on. I can’t keep a straight face any longer. Of COURSE my children watch television. They probably watch too much television. My proudest moment to date with my one year old was the developmental milestone of him being about to sit through an entire programme without losing interest, meaning that E and I could also watch without being climbed on, poked or screamed at.

But children’s television is a double-edged sword. Let’s leave aside its dubious effects on a young, impressionable brain, because a foray into that dark territory of parental guilt serves no purpose other than to make you feel even more crap as a mother, and I am more than capable of feeling inadequate without the help of something that plugs into a wall socket. No, the main issue with children’s television is that as a parent, you inevitably get subjected to it as well.


It seems that kids consume television like they consume food: with a few firm favourites that they can swallow up time and time again without vomiting. E has been through countless phases of ‘favourite programme’, and I approach him being exposed to a new programme with apprehension: Is this the new favourite? Will I get daily requests to see if it is on, to record it, to watch it over and over and over again until my eyeballs are bleeding and I would sell what remains of my soul to watch something else for five minutes? There was Octonauts. For a long time. This, in fact, I actually didn’t mind. It had its fair share of gadgetry, which can only be a good thing, and both E and I learned quite a lot about the natural world. (Please don’t tell me they made it up. It would destroy me).

And then Octonauts was dismissed as boring. We ventured forth into the unchartered territory of television beyond the comforting, padded, primary-coloured cell of CBeebies, to those dens of commercialised iniquity that proffer up a few programmes to fill in the air time between the intoxicating, shimmering world of children’s advertising. These are the places where my child first learned the mantra of: “Can I have that? Can I have that? Can I have that?” as annoying jingles and misleading footage of zooming space rockets (accompanied by tiny writing at the bottom of the screen warning no one in particular that the toy cannot actually fly), talking figures (warning: these figures do not actually talk) and exploding landscapes (warning: these mountains do not actually explode) hypnotise him into a frenzy of purchase anticipation (warning: I will never, ever buy you this, so tough bloody luck, sunshine).


It was then only Jake and the Neverland Pirates that could grace our screen, with their bug-eyes and annoying, squeaky American accents that made me develop an involuntary facial tic. All that bloody asking the viewer for help, just so they could get their sweaty little hands on even more gold doubloons. Do it yourselves, you lazy, pint-sized, vacuous, swash-buckling idiots. I don’t pay my licence fee to do your job for you.

And now, it is all about Scooby Doo. We have left the pirates behind, and spend our time watching a motley assortment of teenagers and a large dog. This programme has everything: a ‘will they won’t they’ hymen-threatening storyline of teenage lust with Fred and Daphne, an intellectual powerhouse nerd-in-heavy-framed-specs in Velma, Shaggy, an inhabitant of the town of Slackerdom who is no doubt a dope-smoker and benefits cheat and an undertow of genetic experimentation gone wrong with a talking dog with early-onset bulimia. Which part of that is not totally suitable for a five year old?

And so it goes on. E’s obsession with programmes seems to last just long enough that I eventually acquiesce to buying those Octonaut pyjamas, or that Jake cereal bowl, or that Scooby Doo bag, two days after which, he announces that Captain Barnacles is effectively dead to him and he’d rather wear an old pillowcase than don that babyish nightwear.


Having not learned to talk yet and only being one and a half – ergo, he has no opinion on anything, let alone the choice of programme – B has been exposed to television that is distinctly age inappropriate. We do try and give him a few moments of CBeebies when E’s back is turned, which is why we ended up watching In the Night Garden the other evening. Now, this was essential viewing when E was his age: I sat through what felt like thousands of episodes. Here is a programme that really does not stand up to close scrutiny, and it gives me a distinct feeling of unease. Firstly, there is the Pinky Ponk. A cross between and air ship and a mammary gland, this bulbous mode of transport has a giant, pale pink breast on the front, complete with nipple. They could not have made a more blatant attempt to hypnotise the breast-feeders in the audience than if a lactating woman popped up every three minutes calling ‘milky…milky…milky’ and pointing at her nipples. Then there is Iggle Piggle, a blanket-dependent, blue-faced idiot, who is marginally less irritating than Upsy Daisy. This woman is a whore. She spends most of the episodes I have seen lifting her skirt and showing everyone her knickers, before kissing anything that moves (particularly anything blue, holding a blanket), before screeching drunkenly into a megaphone like an inebriated teenager who has pre-loaded on supermarket vodka before having one too many WKDs and hogging the pub karaoke machine. And let’s not even talk about the fact that she wheels her bed into the middle of the forest every night…


I find myself musing frequently that kids’ programmes were so much better in my day. Which proves two things. One, I am getting way, way too old. And two, I am also utterly sodding wrong. I call up a few of my favourites on You Tube to remind myself of those seventies masterpieces. First up, The Clangers. Good grief, that programme would give me nightmares now, so god only knows what it did to me back then. Next up, Mr Benn. Right. A weirdo who obviously doesn’t have a job but still leaves the house every morning in a suit and bowler, only to go and hang out in the changing room of the local fancy dress shop. There was a child molester if ever I saw one. It turns out that the bloke who wrote Mr Benn also wrote the Elmer books, which explains a lot. I fucking hate that lumbering, patch-worked elephant. I quickly leave  Festive Street and head to Pipkins, where Pig looks like the victim of a botched face reconstruction carried out on the cheap by an unlicensed Czech surgeon after a nasty incident involving an industrial ham-slicing machine, and Hartley Hare seems to be two heartbeats away from being roadkill, such is his look of barely-contained terror and quivering, mangy limbs. So finally, I move onto Fingerbobs. There is a reason you rarely see beards on children’s television outside of the Christmas season, and this man is it.

So, it’s official. All kids’ television is crap. Actually, that is not true, there are a few gems. I bloody love Shaun the Sheep, but I don’t get to watch it as E has long grown out of it and sitting down on my own with the Shaun the Sheep box set is just a little strange for a woman of forty-two. But a lot of it is crap, particularly when you are not five anymore and yet you are subjected to it anyway. But I have one thing going in my favour. E can’t read, which means that as I scroll down the TV listings on the screen and he asks for anything that I particularly cannot bear (such as the snarky, wise-cracking dudes-fest that is the current version of Spiderman) I can put on my ‘that’s a shame’ face, tell him it isn’t on, but I have a cracking episode of Shaun the Sheep all ready to go in the DVD player if he fancies.